Over Sanders' Opposition, Senate Overhauls Eavesdropping Rules

Watch the senator's floor speech here.

WASHINGTON, July 9 - The Senate voted 69 to 28 this afternoon to make it easier to spy on Americans and let the government circumvent courts in collecting information without warrants. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against the bill that also will shield telephone companies and Internet providers from lawsuits accusing them of turning over private communications without a warrant.

"International terrorism is a serious threat and every member of the Senate is pledged to protect the American people, but we must do that within the context of the Constitution of the United States and the law of the land. No individual, no president is above the law," Sanders told colleagues before the vote. "This president, perhaps more than any other in history, has abrogated the Constitution of the United States. The time is now to stand up and say no more."

The bill undercuts the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Adopted in the wake of government abuses of citizen rights, the Watergate- and Vietnam-era law makes the government get a warrant to intercept communications between someone in the United States and someone outside our borders. In the three decades since the law was enacted, a special court it created has approved nearly 20,000 warrants, and only a handful of requests were rejected.

"Every American understands that we have got to do every single thing we can to protect the American people from terrorist attacks. There is no debate about that," Sanders said. "Some of us believe, however, that we can be successful in doing that while we uphold the rule of law, while we uphold the Constitution of this country, which has made us the envy of the world.

"With strong law enforcement, with a strong and effective judiciary, with Congress working diligently, we can be vigorous and successful in protecting the American people against terrorism and we can do it in a way that does not undermine the constitutional rights which people have fought for hundreds of years to protect," he stated.

Sanders and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy cosponsored an amendment to strike provisions in the bill that give retroactive immunity to the telecom companies. It lost 32 to 66. Sanders worried about the precedent. "If we grant them retroactive immunity, what it really says to future presidents is, ‘I am the law because I'm the president and I will tell you what you can do and because I tell you what to do or ask you what to do that is, by definition, legal.'

"That is a very bad precedent," Sanders continued. "The president is not the law. The law is the law. The Constitution is the law. I don't want to set a precedent by which any president can tell any company or any individual, you go out and do it, don't worry about it, no problem at all. That is not what this country is about."